Caffè Ferrari – stoking coal instead of raking in the cash



A good coffee requires three essential things before it can even hope to qualify as good: choice beans, a perfect blend, and meticulous roasting. Three factors that are not easy to measure. To find out more, we decided to pay a visit to Renato Ferrari for whom the quality of his coffee has always been more mission than profession.

To achieve the perfect coffee blend, Renato Ferrari uses Arabica beans from Central America. He mixes them himself according to a (top-secret) recipe and supervises the protracted roasting process which might well be the key to his coffee’s success. Though now officially retired for nearly 20 years, besides turning his former profession into his hobby, nothing has really changed for him. His coffee takes a long time to roast because the centenarian roaster does not reach temperatures over 200°C. This leads to a higher percentage of tannin being extracted and the aromas developing at a slower pace, resulting in a more intensive flavor.

Early Monday morning, seven thirty, and in the semidarkness a forbidding “No Entry” sign can be made out on the door. On the other door, the shop door, hangs a jokey sign about opening hours. From inside, voices and a clattering sound are audible in the half-light. I screw up my eyes and peer through the windowpane to see whether I can make anything out, and I discover Mike Schärer. Carrying a stack of newspapers, he approaches the forbidden entry door – and beckons me to enter.

Mike Schärer is Renato Ferrari’s nephew: tall, with a friendly face and a rolling “r” that seems to originate far back in his throat. He leads me into the roasting house where a couple of women package the coffee while the master roaster checks the coal fire. The machines dance and stomp in unison and the smell of coffee and burning wood fills the air. The old gentleman can always be found here when, twice-weekly, the green beans are brought over from the warehouse in jute sacks and roasted over the coal fire until they take on a dark brown, oily sheen. The urge to safeguard the quality and his love for the product are the driving factors for him. “They’ll just have to be patient until I’m ready to leave.” Ferrari laughs.

To this day he remains fascinated by his product and is delighted by the renaissance he and his co-workers believe they are witnessing: a new clientele of young customers that find the actual buying experience at the roasting house Ferrari worthwhile in itself. They enjoy entering into this different world with its machines, hands-on manufacturing, and the miniscule shop which is run by Ferrari’s wife, Bethli. “It’s simply their fascination with our special little world that is luring the young ones back to drinking coffee,” states Ferrari with conviction. And not actually the coffee itself.

We don’t produce the best coffee. That will always be a question of taste. But we most certainly produce the best quality.

He leads me into his office and offers me the best seat in the room. Clipped onto his white shirt, the gold cap of a Mont Blanc pen peeks out from beneath the red Paul & Shark yachting pullover Ferrari is sporting. He notices my glance and unprompted goes on to declare that, in order to produce a high-class product, you have to have class yourself. Or as his father taught him:

Un prodotto buono dev’essere fatto con stile.

His father, the man he admires most next to Helmut Schmidt, whom he admires chiefly for his resolute smoking habit and his stubbornness, was his role model. When Ferrari senior arrived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland he could hardly speak a word of the language. But this was in the era of Italian immigration and, no matter how large or small an establishment in “Kreis 4” was, if it belonged to an Italian, it was sure to have an espresso machine in it somewhere. And this in turn needed to be kept filled with those dark Ferrari beans.

Be stubborn and smoke a lot. Then you will grow old and successful.

Many of those clients have been carried over from that time. In part, this is due to Ferrari’s unwillingness to compromise. He does not offer a quantity rebate. “Imagine the profit a person would make just because they buy a larger quantity!” His eyes light up, and with lightening speed he reels off a calculation that leaves me in awe. “If anything, I’d offer a rebate to an old and valued customer.”

As an only son, Ferrari’s freedom of choice when it came to a career was extremely limited. It was always understood that one day he would take over the roasting house. Growing up in the trade, however, he never considered this to be a disadvantage. He admired his father and the master roaster for their passion. They loved their profession and managed the entire business without any outside help.

His father also taught him the importance of being able to execute every step in the process so as to maintain independence as a small establishment. In 1948, after finishing his commercial training and spending a short time abroad, Renato Ferrari came back to the then tranquil town of Dietikon as a proud man, ready to start working in his father’s company. Convinced that he had already learned all that needed to be learned about running a business, he entered the roasting house and prepared to make himself comfortable behind a desk. But his father, a work apron draped over his arm, blocked his way and said in by then quite fluent Swiss German:

Where do you think you’re going? Put on this work apron and go shovel coal!

Disappointed, the young man obeyed and planted himself – along with his pride – next to the pile of coal to learn the ropes of roasting coffee from the bottom up.

And he has not stopped learning since. “All of a sudden, everyone was saying that you had to go on the Internet. And I have never liked computers,” he complains. His uneasiness soon proved to be justified. The website had hardly been uploaded when a certain Mr. Cordero di Montezemolo called and threatened to take him to court. Capitalizing the “F”, placing the word Caffè in front of it, and inserting a coffee cup icon between the words were some of the conditions he had to agree to – to ensure that he would never try to adorn the word Ferrari with a little horse. Ferrari taps his forehead in a typical Italian gesture to express how ridiculous he thinks the whole matter is.

I really do not care about that kind of stuff. Whether Caffè Ferrari or ferrari caffè – my coffee remains what it is, regardless of the name on the package.

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It was an expensive lesson, even though Ferrari could probably have stood his ground and claimed his right to the use of the name. After all, his coffee brand existed long before the high-powered sports cars did. But Renato Ferrari decided not to put up a fight. Apparently even his legendary obstinacy has its limits. He would prefer to smoke another pipe.

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